Back with My Pack from Backpacking

Howdy,

It’s difficult for me to find a spot to start from, so I’ll just ramble and hopefully it’s coherent enough. I got on the internet twice in China, but the firewalls prevented me from logging in to this website (I could look at it, but that’s it). Perhaps I can start with my route. My trip started off in Guangzhou, which is about 2 hours away, and it is the capital city of the Chinese province that is to the north of Hong Kong. I decided it was a little too expensive for my tastes, so I only stayed one night and headed to Guilin the next day. I took an overnight train and got in around 6 AM. Then I walked around for a while before taking a bus to Yangshuo, which is known for it’s absolutely SICK scenery. Here’s a picture that I did not take of some mountains near Yangshuo. Yangshuo was the cheapest town I stayed in, but it’s really touristy. I was really tired of people asking if I wanted to go for a bamboo boat ride, or if I wanted to take their bus to Guilin. After Yangshuo, I tried to go to Chengdu, but could only get as far as Chongqing (apparently the entire country went on holiday during the second week of May. I got to Chongqing and hopped a speedy train (200 km/hr!) to Chengdu). I couldn’t find any trains to anywhere that I knew I could go, so I booked the earliest train to Shenzhen (the city immediately north of Hong Kong). That was 7 days away, though! HA! So I ended up getting stuck in Chengdu for 6 nights. Note: don’t go on vacation in China in early May if you’re like me and don’t book anything, or else try booking everything in advance! Maybe I was just doing it wrong. Oh well.

But now what to talk about? I think there’re beaucoups of stories, but I don’t want to spill my entire guts over the 2.5 weeks. That would be entirely too lengthy. China is extremely different from Hong Kong. It’s almost like the difference between New York city and Texas. This isn’t an accurate comparison, but it’s the closest I can make it. I saw things in China that I’d never see in Hong Kong.

Before I go into details about selected observations and stories, I’d like to talk about myself. Why? Well, I’m selfish and talking about myself is just so easy. Anyway….
I really learned a lot about myself. There were things that I was already aware of, but it’s almost as if I learned them anew. I heard a quote somewhere some time ago from some person that went something like, “when the traveler goes alone, he/she becomes acquainted with him/herself,” or some such thing. That had never really held any weight with me, but the rate at which I was discovering myself was truly amazing and I now see the quote as something I’ll remember for a long time.
The most important thing I learned was that as long as I haven’t gone too long without food, I’m pretty much fine with anything. Stuck in Chengdu for a friggin week? Good thing I had just eaten breakfast! But seriously, when I got of the train in Chongqing, I was slightly hungry (2 apples in 21 hours, plus some water), and the amount of people staring and pointing – which was substantially more than in Guilin, Yangshuo, or Guangzhou – hit me and my sugarless bloodstream like a ton of bricks. But after I ate breakfast and returned to normalcy, the stares weren’t much more than a slight annoyance. I knew that I could become a royal prick if I was too hungry, but I’d never seen the effect so sharply defined; “why are these people staring I hate it so much why don’t they stop,” turned into “people are staring. I guess I can have some fun and play tricks on them,” after just 20 minutes of sitting at a meal (more on the tricks I played later). Food…yeah food.
My Mandarin is simply lousy, but there’s not much that can be done about that. After all, I’ve only been learning for 4 months in a non-Mandarin-speaking city, so there’s only so much progress that can be had. I knew enough to get by, enough to travel, enough to eat, enough to understand the questions the ticket masters would ask me, enough to possibly make people believe I could speak putonghua (mandarin) without saying a word. There was this one guy who came up to me while I was writing in my journal in some park. He asked something, but all I heard was “hanzi,” which means Chinese characters. I said no, because I assumed he asked if I could write or was writing, and while I can write about 200 characters, I wasn’t then and anyway just said no. He then asked something, but all I heard was “dongma” which means understand. I said a little, because I assumed he asked if I could understand putonghua. He then asked something, but all I heard was “tian,” which means day (among other things). I said 6, because I assumed he asked how many days I’d been or I’ll be in Chengdu. He then said something, but I didn’t hear a single word he said. I said thanks, because I assumed by the tone of his voice he was ending the conversation and probably said something along the lines of “great, that’s really cool,” or anything that was expressing his approval of my ability to understand his native tongue. Long story short: I passed the test by BSing my way through. But that was a rare occasion and really only passed off as fluent in restaurants where I expected yes/no questions. I now find myself in a bit of a dilemma: do I continue putonghua, or do I return to finish off Italian? I’m much closer to fluency in Italian, and it is easier, but I know absolutely no native Italian speakers. I’m much further away from fluency in putonghua, and it is more difficult, but I know several native putonghua speakers. I’m unable to take a class on either next semester, so I’d have to teach myself from a book (so boring), but being able to speak with fluent speakers could make my decision. We’ll see.
Another thing I learned about myself is that I have a little bit more of the Marco Polo gene than I’d thought (thanks Dad!); I went to Guangzhou, Yangshuo, and Chengdu with nothing more than my hostel’s street address (not even bothering to look up city maps beforehand) and I found them (or another). In Yangshuo I couldn’t find the place I originally wanted to stay at, but I’m pretty sure it fell into a black hole or something. I walked up and down the street dozens of times and didn’t find it. Although, when I’m walking around aimlessly, I find it nearly impossible to get back to that side-street once I leave. I can always find where I’m going, but when I don’t have a destination, I also don’t have a trail. Go figure fo gigure.

Enough about me. As I said before, China is very different from Hong Kong. In China, I saw people doing what I called the China squat. People smoke indoors. People also spit indoors. People also spit outdoors. I’ve never seen so many old ladies hocking loogies. People throw rubbish on the ground indoors. Also, when I say indoors I mean in public places. They probably don’t just spit inside their own homes. Tourist hawkers are much more aggressive where I went. The most I have to face in Hong Kong is the watch sellers and tailor advert-men, but they don’t ever follow me for 10 feet, continuing to ask even if I ignore them. NO, I would not like to ride in your taxi/bus. Thanks. Traffic is much more hectic in China. Red light? That’s OK, you can make that left hand turn. Road rules? **** that! Especially if you’re on a scooter. Scooters have no rules. Running red lights? Driving in the bike lane/road/sidewalk? All is OK. When the cross-walk is green, unlike in Hong Kong, where green means walk, a green means you must look both ways at all times. There’s always a car that’s going to hit you. However, as much as it is rule-less, it is also easier to cross the street. Even when the cross-walk light is red, so long as the traffic isn’t ‘full-steam ahead’ green, you can walk across and not really be scared. Just use the game frogger as an example and stand on the painted lines as safety islands. I don’t think cars will really run you over. Finally, I spent a little over 4 continuous months in Hong Kong and didn’t see a single auto accident, not even a fender bender. I was in China for 2.5 weeks and saw two fender benders and a scooter that had been smashed to bits. I’m not saying the traffic is crazy in China, I’m just saying isn’t it a little statistically strange? Also, I can’t even express to you how often I heard car/scooter horns in China. It’s like a language 😐
As I mentioned before, people stare. It’s not a malicious stare, they’re just curious. It got a little annoying at times, and it seemed to become acute whenever I was stressed out JUST LIKE THE MOVIES. I decided that there was nothing I could do to make them stop, so I decided to make the best of it and play games with them. I would often stare back, or give them a peace sign (mostly to children), or turn around to catch them staring. My favorite, though, was when I passed an individual’s back, I could see them looking at me, and if they timed it right, they would turn their head with my passing. Does this make sense? Imagine someone staring at you the entire time you pass, but turn them around 180° so that there’s a brief period when they’re looking at the wall or street and not you. It was during that critical time of blindness that I would stop and take a silent step backwards. When they realized I had stopped and looked back at me, I would smile and make some sort of “ooohhh you!!” noise and wag my finger. They laughed every time. Except that one time. He was not a good sport. Grumpy old men, what can you do?
Then there were the oddities that I saw. There were many strange things I saw in China, but I endeavored to keep an open mind through it all. It’s just their thing, right? One of the strangest that I saw several times was when a small child had to make. Instead of wearing diapers, the child’s parent would just let them do business on the side of the sidewalk or over the street gutter. The parents arms would make a toilet seat, can you see it in your mind? The upper arms formed a chair back while the forearms would form the toilet seat, and the child’s stuff would drop in between the parents squatted knees/legs. This was strange, and would probably be considered uncouth in America (but I am only guessing because has anyone ever been so far as to actually try this?)…but I realized that they don’t have to spend money on/destroy the environment with disposable diapers. So for every strange thing, I guess there’s a positive. The strangest, though, would be the woman picking fleas off her dog and then biting them. I realize that she was biting them so that they wouldn’t just jump right back on the dog. That makes perfect sense. But she wasn’t biting and spiting, she was biting and eating. She was getting a free meal! It wouldn’t have been the strangest, but the fact that this was on the main boulevard of the city (Chengdu, a big city), and the fact that she wasn’t merely killing the fleas but rather feasting off their insectoid bodies, and the fact that the dog had a “feels good man” expression on her face all made this the strangest sight I saw in China.

There are many more stories and revelations, but I’ll stop there for sake of length (I want to talk more but I’m already at over 2000 words). China was simply wonderful, a strange and terrific place. I didn’t get to the North like I wanted (I traveled around 4 cities for about the same price as one trip to Beijing), but I’ll take it. I have a preference for Chinese dialects, that go something like this: Taiwan accent putonghua > North China accent putonghua > Hong Kong accent guandonghua (Cantonese) > South/West/East China accent putonghua. This, of course, is just my preference, but since I do not speak guandonghua and only traveled to South and West China, I went to my least favorite accent region. I don’t know how this is relevant, but after some thought I’m not going to edit it out…It took awhile to adjust to the language…I’d been taught things like “zhongwen” (Chinese language or culture), but everywhere I went it sounded more like “jongwen” or sometimes “zongwen.” Also I had to tone down my Rs…in the north, for example, one would say “nar…ni qu nar?” where are you going? But in the south I heard more “na…ni qu na?” where are you going? It made me think about my pronunciation more, though. I also really liked hearing different dialects that I’d never heard. For example, the Sichuan/Chengdu dialect sounds absolutely like NOTHING I’ve ever heard before. Russian? Chinese? Both and neither at the same time, but more so with the latter.
Food, food everywhere! There’s so much to be said about Chinese food….but I won’t ramble. It is what it is: awesome. Sichuan food can be spicy, but what I found is that 1. it isn’t so much spicy like Thai/Indian/habenero pepper, but more spicy like “my eyes are dry, my nose has a slight drip, and my mouth is completely numb” and 2. there are a lot of dishes that aren’t spicy at all. My favorite was Chengdu, though, hands down. I had noodles that were cut, rolled, stretched, and boiled right before my eyes, right after I order. Best noodles in my life. All others have been cardboard by comparison. I also had authentic MaPoDoFu and GongBaoJiDing (kung pao chicken). That’s right…be jealous.

This is likely to be my last word entry. In the next few days I’ll find some time to upload all my pictures to let you see them (including the ones I haven’t uploaded from Hong Kong yet). I seem to have a writer’s block right now, which is rather unfortunate, but I believe that most of what I felt needed to be said concerning Hong Kong has been said already. Through the course of this semester I have grown a lot, but of course I tend to spend a lot of time with myself so it is a little difficult to note the changes. However, the next time you see me I won’t be totally unrecognizable or unfamiliar (I hope). I think the changes I’ve gone through are slight (much like maturity, which are gradual and less noticeable), and as such, I have trouble distinguishing them from general maturing (am I not supposed to go through some profound maturing between the ages of 22-24?). Whatever the case, the time I spent in Hong Kong and China have affected me, no dou’ abou’ i’. I look forward to returning home, but I’ll miss HK. I spent a lot of time here and, given the choice, I don’t think HK would be at the top of my travel destinations. First comes Australia, the rest of Europe, the rest of Asia, from Mexico to Argentina, North Africa, South Africa, West, East and Central Africa, Pacific NW and Canada, Idaho, and then maybe HK again. That’s not to say that I don’t want to return, on the contrary! The rest of the world needs its proper visiting rights first, though.

As for the fate of this blog, I am undecided. Perhaps some pictures of food that I eat, but don’t expect any great novel. From time to time I’ll probably write an excruciatingly long entry (you think this is long, but this is just peanuts to what I am capable of!), but over the summer don’t hold your breath.

Finally, some words of closing.
I am sorry for all the sentences/clauses that start with “I…” However, I am too lazy to go back and change them, so I will just leave them be for now. Again, I am sorry for any inconvenience that I have caused you. I hope you find it in your hearts to forgive my 7th grade novella. I, I, I…It’s been sitting in my draft pile for a few days and I’d like to publish it.

Thanks for reading! Whether you read just a few lines, or a few paragraphs, or the entire thing, whether you’ve diligently read every word of my blog or if this your first visit here, thanks! Were it not for you, my readers, I would have stopped long ago.

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2 thoughts on “Back with My Pack from Backpacking

  1. Caleb, I read every word, am so impressed !!! and so proud of you! Can’t wait to see you.Love Mammi

  2. Caleb
    I have enjoyed reading every word and am looking forward to looking at all of the pics and showing your grandma too. You are one cool guy and I’m so happy you are part of our family, I’m so glad you got to do this and wow, just store the memories in your mind to enjoy at some point in the future when you’re bored or old :0) Safe travels home….see you sooner than later! You should consider making yourself an actual book of your writings and some photos so you can have something to pick up in your hands and look at and share with others….
    Love, Aunt Sherie

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